Should Psychoanalysts Fear Artists?

Tomas MoravecArt. Is this a word that should make psychoanalysts anxious, concerned, or nervous? In this second half of this two-part essay investigating the interrelationships between art and psychoanalysis, I now turn the question the other direction around and ask whether there might be limits to the conventions of talk therapy, with a particular focus on psychoanalysis, and ways in which art might be even more therapeutic and powerful? In other words, are there ways in which artists and their art creations might enrich the field of psychoanalysis? How so, and in what ways? Are there blind spots within the field of psychoanalysis that art might challenge and potentially correct? Can both practices work together, or are there irreconcilable differences?

These question, of course, depend on how you define “art” and what is included within the term “psychoanalysis.” In fairness to contemporary psychoanalysis, given that the field has itself undergone many intellectual and conceptual transformations since its inception and can differ widely depending upon the orientation of the practitioner, I will entertain a broad definition of what psychoanalysis might actually be in 2013. What psychoanalysis is today, or whether it even exists anymore as a united field, is a worthy question for another day. Maybe a rainy day. The same goes for the field of visual art; the boundaries of what may be considered “art” and what subject matter artists take on have been pushed so far that the field at this point probably resembles a disparate collection of loosely related concerns and approaches more than a cohesive group of artists. For the sake of this essay, I will sample from this diversity.

Dr. Danielle Knafo, a well-regarded psychoanalyst whom I interviewed for this piece, has written extensively on both art and psychology. Her work is an inspiring example to me of how the two fields can be linked together in a productive and deep dialogue, one that elevates them both to even higher levels of understanding and strength. She is someone who is definitely not afraid of art; in fact, she has spent much of her career writing and thinking about it. She is very respectful of the artistic process and does not impose a predetermined interpretation of why an artist might be making something. Instead of approaching art or artists with fear or trepidation, she approaches both with a profound respect for the creative process. As she told me in our interview together, she sometimes has artists in analysis for many years without their talking much about their art. And this is perfectly fine. Such a light-footed approach is essential, and has won her the opportunity to speak with many artists and learn about their lives and work.

Dr. Knafo doesn’t think that there is one reason why someone might make art, or even that all art is a response to early childhood. Psychoanalysis is just one lens, of many, from which art can be seen and thought about: there are Marxist interpretations of art, feminist views, queer perspectives, and many more. The goal of all of these approaches is not to put a definitive stamp on what an artwork means or who the artist is; each school of thought, it is hoped, can add a layer to what can be a rich tapestry of meanings for an artwork.

Yet, it is not hard to find artists or works of art that can be explored within the frame of psychology and psychoanalysis. It is not the only frame, but it is often a very compelling one. For example, Dr. Knafo expresses the idea that using art as a response to trauma is one of the most inspiring examples of the strength of the human spirit that we have, and it can take people from feeling like victims into having an empowered voice. This creative transformation of trauma, when someone is able to create something out of their dark experience and use it as a way to move forward and communicate it with others who might have been through a similar situation, is a deeply poignant and powerful expression of our shared humanity.

She is certainly not alone in considering art from a psychological perspective. Melanie Klein, a founding psychoanalyst and provocative voice in the history of the field, was one of the first to propose the idea that mourning could be a source of creativity. Dr. Knafo takes her idea of mourning as a source of art making further by linking it with the capacity for symbolization—the word “symbol,” she notes, comes from the Greek symbolein, which means “to reunite.” In her view, the power of symbolization represents the capacity to wonder and recognize what is missing or absent. Through this process of symbolization, which could be integrated into an artistic practice, an individual creates the possibility of reuniting with whom or what has been lost to us.

This idea of an artwork representing some kind of mourning process is probably familiar to most people who have looked at art. How many great works of art are about some kind of loss? Countless numbers. An artist could be mourning anything, really. A lost lover. A lost childhood. A broken family. A lost dream. A parent who has passed. A lost pet. For these types of artists and artworks, considering them from a psychological perspective can be quite fruitful. Dr. Knafo offers a view of mourning that observes how letting go of what has been lost creates the possibility for renewal. Mourning, considered in this sense, is a positive process that doesn’t leave a person feeling empty; on the other hand, it creates a space where you can make new connections to other people and also rediscover access to memories that might have been blocked. In its broadest sense, mourning can help give meaning to what was lost, or who was lost. As anger and sadness is released, the individual comes to a place where he or she can be reborn psychologically. Making art during this process can be powerful, as it provides a tangible connection to the objects that he or she is symbolically trying to keep alive in the hearts by mourning.

As such, the process of creating allows us to connect to the deepest levels of our psyches. But mourning is not the only way in which to consider why an artist might be making an artwork. Another motivation might be play. It might be play with aesthetic forms. Play with words. Play with collage. Play with gender roles. Play with play. But as Dr. Knafo also notes, drawing from her work as a psychologist, play isn’t always fun. Children sometimes play dead, pretend to be statues, and play all sorts of games which can be cruel or quite strange. Similarly, in the work of contemporary artist/photgrapher Cindy Sherman, for example, play takes the form of some very serious business. She examines what it means to be a woman, slipping in and out of masquerading identities that challenge how we perform identity, gender and sexuality in our culture. She takes on taboo and riskier topics that move into the realm of grotesquery, perversion, and more riskier and seductively complex forms of play.

Artist Claes Oldenburg, known for his large-scale soft sculptures that exude playfulness and whimsical charm, describes his investment in art in more cynical terms. In “I am for an Art,” written in 1961, he talks about his art in a way that plays with tongue-in-cheek humor. He writes, “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum; I am for an art that is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself; I am for an art under the skirts, and the art of pinching cockroaches; I am for an art that is smoke, like a cigarette, smells, like a pair of shoes; I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street.”

But play is just one psychoanalytically informed ways among many in which to consider why an artist might create work. Approaching this question from a very different avenue, Dr. Knafo suggests that some artists create work in order to reconcile the inevitable realization that someday there will be an end to their existences. Life is finite. She cites Otto Rank, an early psychoanalyst who believed that creating art was a type of formula for immortality and an attempt to transcend “finiteness.”

There are many examples of artworks that deal with the theme of finitude, but the work of David Wojarowicz powerfully represents this. During the 1980’s in New York City, the AIDS crisis and its chaotic unfolding had a devastating effect on the art community and the realization that life was finite was impossible to ignore. Emotions like fear and grief entered into the work of many artists, or directly became its subject. David Wojarowicz, who had just witnessed his partner artist/photgrpaher Peter Hujar’s death from the virus, wrote that his own positive diagnosis caused him to relinquish any kind of spiritual or psychic words to make sense of the external world; understandably, watching the slow deaths of his most loved ones would and accepting the knowledge of his own finitude is a state of being that is beyond words. In “Post Cards from America: X-Rays from Hell,” written in 1988, Wojarowicz says “there is a relief in having this sense of mortality.” He describes that he is a “prisoner of language that doesn’t have a letter or a sign of gesture that approximates what I’m sensing.” Without having a meaningful connection to language, “rage may be one of the few things that binds or connects me to you, to our pre-invented world.” In his condition, the “rage is really about the fact that when I was told I contracted the virus, it didn’t take me long to realize that I’d contracted a diseased society as well.”

In the closing passage of his documentary, Wojarowicz, shows a nightmarish dream sequence in which he is having a fantasized conversation with a dying friend whose face has become so mangled and sunken that it looks like a Frankenstein doll. He is talking with this dying friend about whether he should just go ahead and kill himself. They ponder together whether if given the chance to take a pill that would let them die quickly and quietly, would either of them take it. David Wojarowicz, the artist, says no: he would not take this pill. His friend asks for his reasoning why, and David says “There still a lot of work to do.” Despite the apocalyptic hell surrounding him and the specter of death staring him in the face, Wojarowicz uses his slowly fading ability to make artwork as a justification to keep living.

In illustrating another source for making art and how psychoanalysis can be used to deepen its understanding, Dr. Knafo takes up the idea of “otherness.” In fact, one of the difficulties of an artists’ life may be the feeling of being like an outsider, not part of the mainstream, and always on the margins— never feeling completely at home. In her own life as a woman who immigrated to the United States from French Morocco at an early age, she has been able to transform this sense of difference into a creative place. She observes how there is a freedom to being on the outside; many creative people are exiles, refugees, immigrants, or members of ethnic minorities. Being an outsider can be liberating.

John Baldessari, one of the most highly respected conceptual artists of this generation and an icon of the Southern Californian art world, has expressed this same sentiment –“I want to re-enchant and remythologize; I want to drill a hole deep-down in art to discover the mythic infrastructure; I want to express myself in archetypal imagery; I want to move away from racial amnesia; I want to eroticize time, consciousness, and human culture; I want to stand at the edge rather than the center.”

Yet still, other artists are driven to create art as a means to have power or influence over the world, perhaps out of a deep sense of helplessness. There may be political or social critiques to be made as well. In these kind of artworks, a psychological lens might be intriguing in considering how the artwork functions in the world, in addition to exploring the invidividual’s internal processes. In other words, once the artwork is placed out in the world, how are viewers responding to it? And in what ways do the emotions and ideas that the viewers bring to the artwork help create its public meaning?

For example, in 1982, artist Agnes Denes planted a field of wheat in lower Manhattan as a direct confrontation to what she saw as the deterioration of human values and misplaced priorities. Even though this field was planted more than thirty years ago, its placement near Wall Street and the former World Trade Center towers has a haunting resonance. Commenting on her work, Denes wrote: “Manhattan is the richest, most professional, most congested, and without a doubt, the most fascinating island in the world; to attempt to plant, to sustain, and harvest two acres of wheat here, wasting valuable real estate, obstructing the machinery by going against the system, was an effrontery that made it the powerful paradox I had sought for calling to account.”

She continues, “My work usually reaches beyond the boundaries of the art arena to deal with controversial global issues, questioning the status quo and the endless contradictions we seem to accept into our lives—namely, our ability to see so much and understand so little, to have achieved technological miracles while remaining emotionally unstable; our great advances, desirable, even necessary for survival, that have interfered with evolution and the world’s ecosystem; or, for that matter, the individual human dilemma, struggle, and pride versus the whole human predicament.”

Denes knew that “Introducing a wheat field into an island of achievement- craze, culture, and decadence would confront a highly efficient, rich complex, where time is money and money rules. Pitting the congestion of the city of competence, sophistication, and crime against unspoiled farmlands. The peaceful and content against the achiever. Progress versus an existence without stress. The stone city confronting soft rural land. Simplicity versus shrewd knowing. What we already know versus all that we have yet to learn.”

And sadly, “After my harvest, the two-acre area facing New York harbor was returned to construction to make room for a billion-dollar luxury complex. Manhattan closed itself once again to become a fortress, corrupt yet vulnerable. But I think this magnificent metropolis will remember a majestic, amber field. A lot of people, moved to tears, wrote to me to thank me for creating Wheatfield.”

In many ways, her Wheatfield installation represents an analogous metaphor for the meetings between artists and psychoanalysts. Both psychoanalysis and art making have been critiqued as relics of the past, something that only moneyed people in the leisure class have the luxury to do. Susan Sontag famously critiqued therapists as being overly concerned with normality and doing little more than returning patients to their middle class lives, with a little bit more strength to tolerate it.

And, in recent times, artists and psychoanalysts both seem to operate on the margins of culture. There was a time when psychoanalysts such as Freud were considered revolutionary during their time, offering insights into human nature that seemed to shatter our preconceptions, and artists were making grand gestures that spoke to the our shared humanity and destiny. Yet now, in 2013, it hardly seems as though psychoanalysts and traditional artists today are at the forefront of pushing the status quo forward, having been eclipsed by the disorienting pace of technological advances and unequal concentrations of wealth and power throughout the globe. Perhaps this diminished stature, or being delegated to the sidelines, is a commonality to both professions and a challenge they can both confront together. The question of how to remain relevant might unite both disciplines.

Yet, it could be argued, it is now even more important for artists, psychoanalysts, and other creative professionals to let go of their pretensions about the other and come together to help confront some of the pressing problems facing our world today. Both artists and psychoanalysts offer the one thing that our world desperately needs: hope. Hope for creative transformations of culture. Hope for fewer violent wars and repressive political regimes. Hope for more fairness in the world economies. Hope for more play. The possibility of people actually waking up to their own lives and taking destiny into their own hands is a shared vision for both artists and psychoanalysts. And attempting to make a lasting and positive difference in the world, even if only by transforming one artwork or life at a time—perhaps this is what artists and psychoanalysts have most in common. The urgency of the task ahead demands that neither field fears the other.

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